UH Hilo Quintessential University Citizen: Francis Cristobal, IT specialist going beyond the call of duty

It is for Francis Ray Cristobal’s outstanding technical skills, resourceful ingenuity, and generous spirit that he is recognized by the UH Hilo Chancellor’s Executive Council as a Quintessential University Citizen. Currently, he’s helping the university switch to online teaching during the coronavirus health crisis.

By Leah SherwoodPhotos by Raiatea Arcuri.

Francis Cristobal
Francis Cristobal. Photo: Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.

This post is part of a series on Quintessential University Citizens at UH Hilo. The honorees were chosen by members of the Chancellor’s Executive Council and others during the first months after Chancellor Bonnie Irwin’s arrival at the university in July 2019.

Francis Ray Cristobal joined the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo in 2014 as an information technology specialist. At first, his work consisted of mostly IT system administration, including networks and other back-end IT infrastructure support, software development, and desktop support. But in 2019, his role was expanded to become a faculty specialist and he took on additional technical support duties with the College of Natural and Health Sciences.

“I love the problem-solving aspect of my job,” says Cristobal. “When I was growing up, my hero was MacGyver,” he says, referring to the resourceful hero of the 1980s action-adventure TV series. “He could get out of any situation with a cool head, matchsticks, bubble gum, and rope. That’s how I feel. If you love your job it doesn’t feel like work.”

It is for his outstanding technical skills, resourceful ingenuity, and generous spirit that Cristobal has been recognized by the UH Hilo Chancellor’s Executive Council as a Quintessential University Citizen. Ka‘iu Kimura, director of ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, which uses state-of-the-art technology in its delivery of education and community outreach, nominated Cristobal for the honor. Kimura notes that Cristobal is “responsive, courteous, skillful, and resourceful.”

And never have those attributes been more needed.

IT in the age of COVID-19

Now, during the coronavirus health crisis, Cristobal is using all his highly valued problem-solving skills to support the UH Hilo community in its switch to online instruction. He says that the distance-learning team at the university has been leading the overall effort, while he has helped specific departments transition to online education.

“I primarily assist the computer science department, the data science group, the math department, and the dean’s office in the College of Natural Health and Sciences with technology support and training to transition into an online education and a remote work format, should we take that route,” says Cristobal in an interview held prior to the UH System’s decision to switch all 10 UH campuses to online teaching for the remainder of the semester.

Cristobal says up next for him is preparing employees to move to working remotely at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center and the dean’s office in the College of Arts and Sciences. “For training, I usually work with faculty and staff one-on-one. This way I can address all their questions and ensure that they understand the procedures to continue working albeit remotely.”


Cristobal is no stranger to pitching in when help is needed on campus. For the last four years, he has been lending his tech skills to support the campus’s sophisticated CyberCANOE systems, which are high-tech hubs that support advanced data visualization and collaboration among geographically dispersed teams. CyberCANOE (acronym for Cyber Enabled Collaboration Analysis Navigation and Observation Environment) is a large screen format with ultra high resolution and 3D-enabled flat-screen displays connected to a high-performance computer. One function involves using 3D goggles and handheld controllers to manipulate data while fully immersed in the visualization.

Cristobal spearheaded the implementation of UH Hilo’s CyberCANOE systems in the computer science department and at the Edwin H. Mookini Library. Since then, he also has contributed in a consulting capacity to the installation of other CyberCANOE systems at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center and at Hawai‘i Community College’s campus in Hilo and their Palamanui campus in Kona.

CyberCANOE is a room-size display technology inspired by the holodeck on “Star Trek.” The system enables users from varied disciplines at different campuses in the UH System to collaborate on projects that bring together science with art, design and storytelling. It is the brainchild of UH Mānoa Professor of Computer Science Jason Leigh, director of the Laboratory for Advanced Visualization and Applications (LAVA).

Cristobal says it’s a powerful platform for collaborative applications such as remote teaching, global real-time interaction with research teams, and meetings.

“At UH Hilo we use the CyberCANOE primarily for education,” he explains. “The high-resolution display wall is massive. We use high-fidelity microphones and speaker systems that transfer quality audio synchronously with the video, and together with everyone’s ability to simultaneously screen-share to the connected display walls, it gives you a feeling of being there with the class on the other end. It is a highly immersive classroom experience.”

Francis Cristobal
Francis Cristobal, information technology specialist, stands earlier this month (March 11, 2020, before the campus switched to online teaching) in a CyberCANOE classroom he helped build. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.

On O‘ahu, CyberCANOE systems are installed at several locations, including UH Mānoa, UH West O‘ahu, and Chaminade University in Honolulu.

“Installing a CyberCANOE is not just setting up the hardware and software,” says Cristobal. “It involves many moving parts, from procurement, working with various units and administrators at UH Hilo, our partners at UH Mānoa LAVA, Academy of Creative Media, and the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory. There’s a lot of testing between sites, training tech staff and faculty, so it’s a pretty big job. We are very fortunate at UH Hilo that we have access to intelligent students eager to learn and assist in making the CyberCANOE into a reality.”

Cristobal’s consulting role on the CyberCANOE systems at Hawai‘i Community College and ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center have been on a purely voluntary basis in his free time. “I see a lot of potential for this platform so I wanted to help get the Big Island locations up and running,” he says. “I understand that we all have to pitch in and we all have to work together to accomplish a larger goal.”

Cristobal also is involved in collaborative projects such as the development of a coral reef museum in virtual reality with John Burns, assistant professor of marine science at UH Hilo; the development of an augmented reality projection table for the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center; and the development of a CyberCANOE visualization for Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death (ROD) research with Ryan Perroy, assistant professor of geography at UH Hilo. The ROD visualization has been showcased at the ‘Ōhi‘a Lovefest events. His next project is to develop visualizations using holographic light emitting diode fans.

A highly valued cog

Cristobal insists that he is just one element in the success of the projects at UH Hilo. “I am just a cog in the wheel,” he says. “I handle the technical aspect, but I depend on and collaborate with other units for auxiliary and IT services like electrical, space preparation, and networking.”

He specifically acknowledges the support he receives from William Walters, the director of Auxiliary Services at UH Hilo; Daryl Masuda, the director of the Computing Center at UH Hilo; Jared McLean, a software engineer at the UH Cyberinfrastructure; and Keith Edwards, the chair of the computer science department at UH Hilo.

Cristobal earned an undergraduate degree from Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a master’s degree from Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, Minnesota.


Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University.

Photos by Raiatea Arcuri, a professional photographer majoring in business administration with a concentration in finance at UH Hilo. 

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